Thursday, January 29, 2015

Feeling superior

Comparing yourself to others can make you a stronger player.  You can observe weaknesses that you want to avoid, strengths you want to pick up, etc.  Where it gets dangerous is when you start feeling superior yourself to others as "I'm better because I'm more X than John."

Variations of this are "...because I'm more skilled than Joe" or "because I play more interesting rhythms than Jane", to "because I'm more Japanese than Tina" or "because I've been playing longer than Tim."

While comparing ourselves to others is human nature, as taiko players you're just begging for a rude awakening if you try to feel superior using this mindset.  I guarantee you that there is someone out there who is more "whatever" than you.  So why go there?

If I compare my worth to someone else by thinking "I'm worse than him because he can play faster patterns," then what happens when someone joins the group who can't play faster than me?  Am I suddenly better?  Of course not.  So why would I be worse before?  If you feel like you're better than someone because you're "more Japanese" and/or "more authentic" than them, what happens when you encounter someone who's even more of that (whatever the hell that even means) than you?

It's totally understandable to look at someone and make a comparison of skill based on what you see.  Being a single thing or having a few skills that are at a higher level than another is simply what it is.  However, judging your worth or others' worth based on them makes for self-sabotage in the short- and/or long-term.  Why do that to yourself?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Dead spots, bright spots

"You notice the dead spots, but you remember the bright spots."

I said that the other night and thought it would make for a great post.

When you watch a performance, it's really easy to spot who's not giving as much as the rest.  Maybe they're nervous, maybe it's hard for them to project ki, maybe they're not feeling good...whatever the reason, it creates a "dead spot" of energy.  As an audience member, that difference in energy often catches our eye, and then we start wondering what's causing that lack of energy.  It's like passing by an accident, we can't help but watch.  Not that it's ever THAT bad, but we do tend to do it.

However, when you leave a show, you tend not to think of those people; you tend to think of the ones that really stood out in a good way.  That awesome soloist, that happy guy in the back, the woman that beamed energy, etc.  Those are the people you get inspired by and the ones you look forward to seeing again.

When we're new to taiko and put in a performance, it's easy to be the "dead spot".  It happens!  But how do you move towards the other side of the spectrum?  You can jump up and down and flap your arms and scream if all you want is attention, but it's much much more than that.  It's about emanating joy from a genuine place, however that's expressed.  It's not about being "more joyful" than the person next to you - because that's not genuine - but about getting better at expressing that love of taiko while still respecting the spirit of this song, of that solo, etc.  It's definitely a skill!

If you want to think of this sort of projection as "shining bright", don't think about shining from the inside.  Instead, shine from the inside out, express your joy through the drums, through your style - and you might be the one that people are looking forward to see the next time!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Drill: My Favorite Drill

If you've read my blog over the years, you'll see I often mention the duple over the triple, 2 over 3, 3 over 4, how and why patterns in 3 end up in so many solos, etc.

The drill today is one I've been playing with for years.  I'm likely to put some of the patterns into a song in the future, as well!  It's a drill you can customize and play with to adjust the difficulty and usefulness.

- You NEED a metronome.  It's very easy to think you're doing it right and be off without one.
- Each step gets progressively harder, but you can adjust the tempo and increase the repetition of segments to whatever works for you.

Step One:

This is a "primer" for getting into the feel of the triple meter.  Four triplets followed by 12 straight beats.  If the triplets are new to you, cycle them for a while.  If you feel this is easy, feel free to move on.

Step Two:

This is where things start happening.  Four triplets as before, followed by three doro-tsuku.  At first, you may feel a sense of disconnect, as the doro-tsuku don't feel like they fit.  But fit they do!  There are two things that will help:
  • Make sure your hands are playing every note.  The drill in Step One had you playing the same notes, but without accents in the 2nd half.
  • Know where the metronome beats fall.   DO-ro-tsu-KU-do-ro-TSU-ku-do-RO-tsu-ku.  This may totally mess you up at first, but for some of you it might provide anchor points.
  • Slow it down on your metronome if you need to!
Step Three:

This is just Step Two at a faster tempo.  For me, I find this a lot easier than Step Two because it starts feeling like a melodic line rather than just rhythmic.  I can feel the groove of the pattern and not have to think of where the notes should go.

Step Four:

This is where things can get very difficult, but also where you can start customizing this drill.  Ultimately, it's just math:
  • One triplet = 3.  Four triplets = 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 = 12 notes.
  • One doro-tsuku = 4.  Three doro-tsuku = 4 + 4 + 4 = 12 notes.
  • 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 4 + 4 + 4 = 24
  • Knowing this, you can shift the 3s and 4s around and create some really interesting patterns.
    • At first, keep the triplets in pairs (3 + 3).  One triplet by itself adds more difficulty that you want to stay away from at first.

The video for Step Four is as follows:
  • 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 4 + 4 + 4
    • Four triplets then three doro-tsuku (x4).  The same pattern from Step Two and Three.
  • 3 + 3 + 4 + 4 + 3 + 3 + 4
    • My favorite combination of these two patterns.
  • 4 + 3 + 3 + 4 + 4 + 3 + 3
    • This one is tricky but I'll let you figure out how it feels.  It's just the last pattern in reverse.
  • 3 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 3 + 3 + 3
    • Giving you a taste of splitting the triplets up.  Trust your hands and make sure you play every note so you come back on the triplets.
Step Five:

This is just Step Four at a faster tempo.  Like in Step Three, hearing patterns faster sometimes makes them easier to play, but don't rush to play at this tempo until you feel comfortable at a slower tempo.

Step Zero:

This felt best put at the end, but it's not actually all that hard.  If you want to just feel how these patterns lock into the downbeat, play triplets along to the metronome while listening to the videos.  You'll hear how things lock in and it'll let you know that I'm not making this up!


You can easily make up your own patterns using the math and see what it sounds like.  Some patterns will sound better than others, for sure.

You might feel like this isn't all that useful because you don't solo in three.  While the feeling of this drill is in three, it could easily be in four.  The goal of this drill isn't to play these patterns, it's to be more adept at feeling how patterns fit no matter what meter you're in, what ji you have, etc.  The drill is just a method to get there.

So how did this drill work for you?  I'd love to know after you spend some time on it.  Have fun!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Being creative

" are the person who gets told NOT to do stuff."

That was one of the best compliments I've gotten.  It came from Yurika the night of some solo work last week where the goal was to try new things.

Yes, I have been told (more than a few times) to not do something that I've come up with...usually for good reasons.  But with those rejected ideas have come countless number of really good ones.  By going so far away from "normal", I've been lucky enough to come away with many great patterns, movements, ideas. etc.

You've heard the term "think outside of the box" often enough.  But when people are given freedom, encouraged to solo differently and try new things, why is it often so hard to break out of our comfort zone?

Here are some ideas that I feel have served me well over the years:

  • The more of a perfectionist you are, the less creative you're likely to be.  You can't control creativity.  It needs to breathe, it needs to grow.
  • Question the rules.  Even if you don't ask "why?" out loud, ask it to yourself.  What are the rules and what happens if you break them responsibly?  Kids don't know what they're not supposed to do and look how creative they can be.
  • Find inspiration everywhere you can.  It's easy to be inspired by a song or a scene from a movie.  But what about the way a mantis moves?  The way sodium reacts to water?   Petrichor?  What would those look and sound like in taiko form?
  • Creativity often happens away from others.  When people are watching, when people can give feedback, when you're worried about judgement, this often stifles creativity.
  • Having said that, sometimes collaborating with another person gives you ideas you would never had come up with on your own.
  • Don't judge your creativity against anyone else's.  That's a recipe for disappointment.  Even if you feel you're "more creative" than someone, odds are you'll find people way "more creative" than you.  What good does that do you?   And if you feel "less creative" than someone, so what?  What does someone else's ability have to do with YOU creating new things?
  • Limitations can produce creativity.  Only being able to use one bachi or having to play blindfolded will force you to do things you wouldn't normally do.  This gets the creative juices flowing.
  • Fail. You want to be creative?  You're going to fail.  The more you create, the more you'll fail.  If you fear failing, you won't be able to create.  It's hard to get past the first few rounds sometimes but is it liberating when you do, because you can view failure as progress instead of this horrible thing that means you suck.
No one can make you more creative.  It comes easy for some, not for others.  You have to WANT it.  You have to WORK at it.  All I can do is share my advice and my experiences.  If they spark something, if they inspire something, please let me know!  And keep creating!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Drill: Feeling that 3 (video)

(You'll need a metronome for this one!)

A lot of music is in 2 and 4.  Because of that, a repeated pattern in 3 can really shine as it weaves in and out, back and forth around the duple feel.

I hear a lot of these kind of patterns in taiko, but some people don't always groove them well.  They can be ahead of the beat, behind the beat, or switch back and forth without really settling.  The best way to feel how a pattern in 3 fits over a 2 or 4 is to practice a basic, repetitive pattern.

A 3 over 2 pattern can be simple: The Christmas song "Here Come the Bells" is 3 over 2 ad nauseam.  You can find it on YouTube and you'll hear a triple meter with a pattern in two bouncing on top of it.

But for my videos, I give you three drills.  Both videos have an "easy" and "hard" mode.  The first video is slower, the second video is faster:

First drill - you have a pattern in three (te re su) over a simple count of four.  This and variations of it are heard in countless solos.  And for good reason - it's catchy!

Second drill - you have the same pattern with one note removed (te su su) which should have the same feel, but can be much harder without that second note to help "steady" you.

Third drill - you have an advanced variation where you change the sticking at will.  Instead of the "easy" version which is the same sticking for the first (right-left) and second (right only) parts, you can switch to the "hard" version where it doesn't matter which hand plays which note.

Here's some helpful hints:
  • SLOW IT DOWN until you can really FEEL where the 3 fits into that 4.
  • Don't feel like you have to be doing all three drills in the same go.  Get the first down, then work on the second, then get the first followed by the second, then maybe try the third.  There's no rush, no need to do everything at once.
  • If the beeps are too sparse for you, make them eighth notes or sixteenth notes.  Consequently, if you want more challenge, make them half or whole notes (you can go at half the bpm).

You can do any of the drills in any order you want.  I made the two videos at two different speeds just to show a couple of options.  You can stick to the first drill over and over at a much slower tempo, or switch between them all at a much faster one.  Make the drill work for you!

I made a post similar to this on hemiola here, but this is much less to read and a lot less complicated...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Playing music


"Playing fast around the drums is one thing.  But to play music, to play with people for others to listen to, that's something else.  That's a whole other world."  - Tony Williams

Tony Williams was a jazz drummer who played with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, among many others.  His quote is good food for thought for us taiko players.

I've seen a lot of players with really fast hands.  And I've seen a lot of players who can pull off some fancy patterns.  But sometimes I get the feeling playing fast comes with a cost: playing musically.

Don't get me wrong, I love being able to play fast.  I push myself to play faster doro-tsuku and crossovers on the katsugi okedo, among other things.  And I feel like I'm still getting faster!  But when it comes to actually performing - soloing, mainly - I want to speak through my music, not overwhelm with it.

I want the option to create a wall of sound through a lot of notes, but I don't want that as my default.  I want to match the song, the vibe, the feel at the time to enhance what's already there.  Think of it this way.  I love hot sauce.  I put sriracha, Tabasco, Cholula, and what-have-you on most things I eat.  But I wouldn't put it in my cereal!  Nor would I want it on a Panna Cotta or a classic dish like a Beef Wellington.  If I was making a meal for others, I might add a bit of spice but I would take into consideration the people I was making it for and the kind of occasion it was.  It's not for everyone, it's not for every time.

One drill I have people do in my improv workshops is to give them a few bars of time to solo and a limited number of notes that they can play, say 4 to 8.  Soloing under that extreme parameter is actually really easy; you can just hit the drum 4-8 times whenever.  But to make that solo work, you have to put those notes in just the right places to make it sound musical.

Being dexterous and fanciful aren't bad things - better to have the ability to be that than not -  but without moderation and the ability to temper when to go there, they become habits that are hard to shake off down the road.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Hiding weaknesses in kumidaiko

I've heard - and said - that you don't want to be the dead spot on stage in terms of ki and projection, and that's very true.  If everyone else is giving 120% and you're giving 70%, you're the one people are watching, and not for good reasons.

When you play in an ensemble - like kumidaiko - the sum of the players makes for a very strong effect.  However, it can also hides the weaknesses of the individual.  For a performance, this is great because you don't want those weaknesses to be noticed.  For the individual, however, this is not so great.

Think of singing in a choir, and feeling that strong sense of harmony in the moment.  That harmony can be so powerful that it conceals anyone who's off a semi-tone, who's not singing loud enough.  You wouldn't notice it as the audience, and you wouldn't notice it as the player with those issues because of the ensemble effect.  So in order not to fall into that trap, what can you do?

When you play a song (practicing a part you're familiar with), are you really playing cleanly, strongly?  Do you really look like how the song and the composer want you to look?  Are you demonstrating your group's style correctly?  The only way to really know these things is to play solo - not a solo, but play that part by yourself, listening and watching for what you know isn't up to par.  Now when you're new to a song or a part, it's very likely you might notice these things, but don't be too hard on yourself.

Unless you're just that good, you'll find flaws and things that aren't as strong as the group as a whole.  Being honest with yourself about how much difference there is between your skills and the ensemble can be a real ego-crusher, but from there you can grow.  Not knowing often means not growing...

Monday, January 5, 2015


picture by JHolko photography

So it's a new year and almost six years of blogging about taiko.  Yow!

I wanted to talk about why I do this still, why I blog twice a week and what I get out of it.  When I started this thing, I didn't have a long-term plan.  Heck, I still don't.  I just wanted to get my thoughts down because the few ears I had access to were sick of hearing me rant about stuff.

I don't write as an authority on taiko, or as a spokesperson for SJT.  I don't have experience running my own group or coordinating large events.  My posts come from someone who is ridiculously passionate about taiko and extremely into creativity, growth, and questioning things.

In these few years, I've learned a lot, seen a lot, written a lot.  Some of my opinions have changed slightly because of my experiences, while others have become even more important to me.

I hoped I would get more comments, but that never really caught on.  Even with the anonymous commenting feature on here, people aren't inclined to respond.  I'm not great at design and know my blog is pretty bare-bones but it's functional.  I'd love it to be more visually appealing, but until I figure out what I want or how to do it, I'll stick to this format.

It's not easy to post twice a week.  I'm often stumped for ideas and have to ruminate for a while before I can think of a topic.  Other times I've got 3-4 ideas I try to get down all at once.  I try not to duplicate topics, but it can't always be helped.

And so now that the initial rants are down, why do I keep writing?  Because I believe you should never stop learning.  When I write a post, I think a lot about what I'm trying to say.  I might ramble, I might be a little "loose" in my presentation, but I'm always working towards a better understanding of any given topic.

It's also a great feeling to know that many people not only read this, but actually get something out of it.  Sometimes I'll have a reader come tell me they really liked a drill or a topic I posted about, and it still surprises me - and I appreciate it, I really do!

Another reason I keep posting is I'm really hoping for more dialogue and more communication within the taiko community. Since I started playing some 20-odd years ago, there's been a huge increase in both of these things and that is fantastic, but there are still some very persistent topics that stick around, that keep coming up - or don't come up enough.  Some of these are really big, some aren't at all.

If my posts can stir some thoughts, get people thinking, get people talking about these issues - then I am really happy.  I find that my favorite part of taiko conferences and workshops are the conversations and discussions that happen during the events, both formal and informal.  I can teach you how to play better, but sometimes making you think about things in a new light is way more valuable.

So that's where I'm coming from.  Now back to ranting.  :)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

What should you be working on?

We had a belt test in the dojo a few weeks ago.  In the higher ranks, the judges will ask you questions near the end of the test, after you've tired yourself out.  Often these questions are targeted at things you've just done that the judges want to focus on.

As one of the judges for this past test, the questions I wanted to ask one particular student were "already taken" as it were.  So I wanted to get a sense for where his mindset was.  I asked him "what do you think you should be focusing on at this level?"  His answer wasn't quite what I was hoping to hear; it was more about specific techniques rather than concepts.  In hindsight, I should have been more specific in the asking.

But it's a question I want to ask all of you now.

If you're pretty new to taiko, this isn't a good question for you, yet.  As for the rest of you, look back to when you started and what you struggled with.  Look at your journey and the new ideas, the new concepts you had to implement.  Now look at where you are now.  What should you be working on?

Don't think of the new song you just learned or the cool pattern you've been drilling.  Think instead of concepts, ideas, challenges.  Think of where you've come from and how you can continue to make progress.

This is a question that can be difficult for people who rely on others to tell them exactly where to go next.  However, it's an easy question in that there are multiple "right" answers, depending on the person.  Maybe you should work more on flexibility, and wrist snap, and staying in tempo...but if you only think of one of those areas, you're still "right"!

\So what should you be working on in 2015?